Reflections on a first attempt at writing a historical novel
‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’
L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953
Out of my comfort zone
I grew up an Englishman on English soil. The past of the land I lived on was my past; I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I understood it intimately, intuitively.
These days, I live on the other side of the world, in a country where, until 1788, there were no Englishmen, other than a tiny number of whalers and sealers at a few points around our continent’s vast coastline — and no Englishwomen at all, as far as is known.
Stolen land, stolen history
The ‘settlement’ of the land that I live on, here in Victoria, began in 1835 with the landing of John Batman and his party.
It’s so close that I feel I can almost reach out and touch it. There are still descendents of the first settlers living on the same land their ancestors took possession of. Let’s not mince words: the land that they stole, with the connivance of the British Crown.
My wife and I are regular visitors to Port Fairy, Victoria. As a daughter of a Western District farming family, Susan has connections aplenty there. No less than three of her cousins have holiday homes in the town, including the little bluestone (basalt) cottage on Sackville Street, in the heart of town, that we often stay in.
The cottage, the town and the coast feature often in my fiction, as they do in my life.
A morning at the surf beach is a satisfyingly complete sensory experience. It quickens the pulse and floods the nervous system with endorphins, the brain with dopamine, leaving the conscious mind in a happy daze, sinuses and skin refreshed and ears abuzz.
So why do we go there so infrequently? When we first moved here, nearly 20 years ago, we went often. Over the years … well, life has got in the way, with its clutter and preoccupations. This seems a good morning for decluttering!
Our morning begins with the short drive across the peninsula to Ocean Grove. As we approach the last of the low ridges upon which the seaside town sprawls — ancient sand dunes — we are rewarded with a first glimpse of the sea.
What awaits us? Long, regular lines of rollers, or broken surf? A greyish, surly sea under a leaden sky, or a mirror of cerulean with barely a ripple overlaid on the long swell?
It has happened again. A couple of days away in our campervan, and I’ve come back with a new tale to tell.
It is not something that actually happened – thankfully – but it was definitely inspired by the place we stayed and what we experienced there. It is a unique tale, then, which would not have been conceived anywhere else.
You’ll have to wait a while to read ‘Badger Hill’, as I’ve submitted it for a competition with my local writers’ group and don’t want to disqualify my entry through conflicting ideas about what constitutes ‘prior publication’.
It’s a little darker than most of my output, although it starts off innocuously enough. A woman receives a minor injury at the end of the first stage of a multi-day hike. At least the campground is idyllic …
The volcanic plains of southwestern Victoria sweep down from the craggy Grampians and Victoria Ranges in the north to the Bass Strait coast, where they are abruptly truncated at sandstone and limestone cliffs or hemmed by soft dunes and marshy lagoons.
From east to west, the Newer Volcanics Province extends 400 kilometres from Melbourne to the South Australian border. It contains over 400 volcanoes, of which Tower Hill is one of the newest, having erupted as recently as 5,000 years ago. Tower Hill is one of the world’s largest maar (cinder cone) volcanoes.
The Bellarine Peninsula juts between Port Phillip Bay and wild Bass Strait like the knobbly head of a monstrous sperm whale, toothy jaws agape.
Our northern shores are nibbled by the choppy waves of Corio Bay and Outer Harbour; our southern beaches are thrashed by the big surf. In the jaws of the whale lies quiet Swan Bay. The chain of sand islands which almost close the mouth are the whale’s teeth.
Under the whale’s chin lies the fearsome Rip. All vessels that enter and leave Port Phillip Bay must run this gauntlet.
The little creek near my house is my favourite walking route. Once it was an important thoroughfare for the Wadawurrung people — from the Bay to the waterholes which are the only permanent fresh water in the area. They called the creek Gurnang.
After ‘settlement’ (i.e. theft) of the lands around Port Phillip Bay (Narrm Narrm) by British colonists from 1835 onwards, our peninsula was largely cleared of native vegetation and became an important agricultural hinterland for the bustling port city of Geelong.
When my wife and I came to this area in 2002, the creek, now known as Griggs Creek, was a weed-choked seasonal trickle of water on the edge of town, bordering low-grade pasturage with a few cattle dotted across it.
I’m no great fan of urban sprawl, and was concerned to discover that plans were afoot to build 3,000 dwellings on the other side of the creek — in effect, a brand-new township.
In the event, this well-planned development has brought both recreational and environmental benefits to our community.
Where there was once a gullied cow paddock, there are neat streets of houses — but also wetlands teeming with life. A walking and cycling track winds through parklands planted with indigenous shrubs and trees to the Bay and a perfect view of the You Yangs peaks on the opposite shore.